A little over a month ago a tragedy hit Manchester. Terrorism had struck again. The moment I learned the news I was listening to Anton Arensky’s Violin Concerto in A minor, Op. 54. It gave me a lot of consolation. Reading the headlines, I felt no anger. I felt sad. And I felt determined not to be intimidated, not to be afraid. Looking back at the string of terror attacks since 9/11, I have come to the conclusion that this facet of evil has become part of my daily life and will not go away. Resilience in the face of evil is the shield and sword of democracy.
In Balakirev’s footsteps
Arensky’s violin concerto mirrored my state of mind: sad, but calm. Arensky was born into a music-loving family in Novgorod, Russia in 1861. Around 1879 he enrolled in the Conservatory of St. Petersburg where he studied under Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. After graduation in 1882 he became himself a music professor at the Moscow Conservatory where he taught Sergei Rachmaninov, Alexander Skryabin and Alexander Grechaninov, three composer we have already met. In 1895, he succeeded Mily Balakirev, one of the Mighty Five*, at the head of the Imperial Chapel in St. Petersburg. He held this post until 1901, when he resigned with a substantial pension that allowed him to compose as a freelancer.
Arensky very successfully appeared both as pianist and conductor at concerts in Russia and abroad. However, from his early years on he had been addicted to drinking and gambling and died in 1906 at the age of 44. Arensky did not achieve a lasting fame among Russia’s composing elite, the composer himself and his works are little known today. However his violin concerto has been recorded by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and the Russian violinist Ilya Gringolts, a recording that I love to listen to.
Piano works inspired by Chopin
Arensky, as so many other Russian composers of his time, married the musical style of Western Europe with homegrown themes and melodies. The ideas of the Mighty Five account for the folk elements in his music, while his piano works for instance show the influence of Frédéric Chopin and Felix Mendelssohn. His style is lyrical, the Romantic expression ever-present – wonderfully exemplified by the Violin Concerto in A minor.
The violin concerto saw the light most likely in 1901, it was published in 1902. Arensky dedicated it to the violinist Leopold Auer. It is written in one continuous movement, albeit it can be divided into four sections. The first section is very melodious for the solo violinist and the orchestra, close to Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s musical language. The second section is a little more temperate with a delicate pizzicato* part. The third section is written in a “tempo di valse” and sure enough, the orchestra plays a slow valse in the background while the solo violinist indulges in his captivating theme, beautifully played by Gringolts, while the final section surprises with emotional outbursts and scintillating violin figures.
The day of the Manchester bombing I listened to Arensky’s piece several times. It felt good at the time. It still does now. Thank you, Anton.
© Charles Thibo